Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Security theatre

Once again, the news is dominated by a terrorist attack, this time in Brussels. At the time of writing, something like two dozen people are reported to have died in what seem like coordinated attacks on an airport and a metro station (a death toll which is likely to rise, as death tolls usually do). Once again, as the dust settles on scenes of what can certainly be called mass murder, thoughts turn to how vulnerable we all are, and how we can protect ourselves.

It’s a natural — and, to be honest, perfectly sane — reaction. It’s a shocking thing to have happen, and all the more shocking now that modern technology means that minutes after the event, we can see uncensored pictures and videos of the desolation and the walking wounded, bringing an even greater sense of immediacy to it all. It is, of course, likely perfectly true that this is exactly “what the terrorists want”, although by now we should probably recognise that pointing this out every time isn’t very helpful.

The problem, I think, is that security theatre will be stepped up, because the focus of the attacks was an airport.

“Security theatre” is basically the phrase used to describe security measures that are put in place not because they actually work, but because they make people believe they are safe. After 9/11, airport security was stepped up to quite ludicrous levels, and there is no evidence that this has prevented, or even could prevent, a single terrorist attack. In fact, the security measures don’t even appear to work, and attacks have continued. The real security goes on behind the scenes: detective work, surveillance and intelligence, that kind of thing. It’s when these methods fail that attacks can take place.

The obvious flaw in the airport security we currently have is this: even if it prevents people from taking bombs onto place, it doesn’t prevent bombings — as we have now seen. If they can’t bomb planes, they’ll bomb terminals.

I’ve long speculated about this. If I were a terrorist intent on dying for my cause, I’d go to an airport with my explosives and a boarding pass (which can very easily be faked, by the way). It would be a major airport at a busy time, and I’d get into the queue for security, which is usually a crush because airports weren’t built with this kind of security in mind. And in the middle of that crowd, I’d detonate my bomb. I suspect the casualty list would be extremely high: typically, these queues are trapped in narrow areas, hampered by the sheer number of people, the X-ray machines and those barriers they use to make the queues snake around so they can pack as many people into a tight space as possible. I could certain shut down the whole terminal, probably for a long time.

Of course, detonating a bomb almost anywhere in an airport would be extremely effective.

So, it’s probably natural to want to put security at the entrance to the terminal itself. But that doesn't solve the problem: it simply moves it elsewhere. Because then you’d just have crowds of people waiting for security outside the terminal instead of inside it, so that’s where a terrorist would do the bombing.

Or not. A terrorist could, instead, attack something else. On this occasion, they did attack the Brussels metro as well — why assume they wouldn’t? In the 7/7 bombings in London, 56 people died and over 700 were injured when bombers attacked three underground stations and a bus. Much more recently, several people were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Istanbul. Ankara saw over 100 people die last year, another 30 last month (including one German tourist from a neighbouring village to mine) and nearly 40 just a few days ago. And I’m sure we could all reel off a list of equally devastating terrorist attacks that had nothing to do with airports, starting with the Paris attacks last year that killed over 100.

The thing is, airport security isn’t doing anything; and increased airport security will also do nothing. The terrorists will simply target other things: metro and railway stations, shopping malls, night clubs, busy plazas, markets, you name it. What are we to do, put security checkpoints on every street corner?

This isn’t how to fight terrorism. It may be seen as a quick way to calm the nerves of terrified citizens, but that only works until the next attack. What’s actually needed is proper, competent behind-the-scenes intelligence work that actually targets the right people (mass surveillance of all our communications is another distraction, but that’s an entirely different subject). That’s where the resources need to be directed, not pointless security theatre.


  1. I personally think that the only reason the security theatre is being done is that people want to actually see something physical instead of being told that something is being done behind the scenes.

  2. Hi Andrew,
    I agree.
    I flying very often at many airports in Europe.
    Mostly there is a big crowd of people in front of any type of security.
    Therefore - there is no security possible against terrorist.
    You can do some security against fare-besting, theft, pickpocketing or similar with a chance to be effective.
    You can't do anything against terrorism or guerilla - as long as the "Idea" behind or the "reason" therefore exist.